We need journalists now more than ever – so why don’t we do more to protect them?

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By Professor Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy and International Development

When it comes to saving democracy and fighting for freedom, no one has a more important role to play than journalists.

Take the current war in Ukraine. This is a conflict driven by Vladimir Putin’s personal beliefs and obsessions, but it has also been facilitated by the limited checks and balances in the Russian political system. One of the biggest weaknesses of that system is that Putin’s control over the media is so great that most Russians don’t actually know what is happening in Ukraine, or how the conflict is understood in the rest of the world. The absence of accurate and impartial information has stymied domestic criticism of Putin, lowing the costs of sustaining the conflict, and hence reducing the incentives for the Russian president to change course.

It is not only in Russia that we can see the importance of the media to democracy and human rights. Amartya Sen famously argued that a famine was much less likely to take place in a country with a free press, because a government would not be able to let it happen in a country in which failure to act would be front page news.

It is therefore imperative to protect journalists and free speech if we want to bring an end to a global democratic recession that is now in its seventeenth year – and which has led to a situation in which eight out of ten citizens now live in a country that is either “unfree” or only “partly free”.

And yet the international community regularly don’t.

It is true that the international community spends a lot of money promoting the media and what the UK government is now calling “open societies”. OECD countries spend around US $600 million on facilitating a stronger and freer media environment around the world every year, and for much of the last five years “Media” has been the third largest sector of Democracy Aid (below “Democracy and Participation” and “Human Rights” but above “Women”, “Political Parties”, and “Elections”). In this way, the international community invest a considerable amount in trying to enhance media freedoms around the world.

But almost nothing is said by world leaders when a journalist is killed in their line of work.

This is particularly striking because journalists are murdered so frequently. Forty five journalists were killed in 2021. That is almost one a week. Only six of those who died did so because of what we might call the environmental dangers related to their profession, such as being caught up in armed conflict or civil unrest. By contrast, twenty eight, by far the majority – keep in mind that eleven cases are still under investigation – were murdered in direct retaliation for their work.

The most dangerous countries for journalists that year were Mexico (seven deaths), Afghanistan (six), India (six), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (three). But the death toll isn’t contained to a small number of countries – journalists were also killed in Colombia, Guatemala, Philippines, Yemen, and Haiti. It is important that those reading this in Europe or North America don’t make the mistake of thinking that is something that happens “over there”: last year six journalists were killed in Europe, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, the Netherlands and one in Greece.

Almost none of these killings were condemned by the world leaders who have the influence to do something about it.

Partly as a result of this silence, the killings will continue. As I write this blog, news is emerging that police in Brazil looking for the missing journalist Dom Phillips and local expert Bruno Pereira have located items belonging to the pair and a body. This follows news late last week that investigators had found blood on the boat of a fisherman, who has since been arrested.

Phillips and Pereira had become well known for exposing illegal fishing and other threats to the Amazon. The two men had previously documented a number of threats they had received that were designed to intimidate them into giving up their campaign. They refused, staying true to their values, and may now have paid the ultimate price for their commitment to their principles.

While their deaths have not yet been confirmed, the police have told Reuters that the fisherman who has been arrested is suspected of illegal fishing to supply a buyer in Peru and has been charged with illegal possession of restricted ammunition.

Given these dark details, the 2022 Commonwealth Journalist Association-UK Birmingham Student Journalists’ Conference on “Excitement and Risk: Prospects for Journalism in the Digital Age” could not be more relevant or timely. Held at the University of Birmingham and online, the diverse and dynamic event will feature panels on everything from the challenges and opportunities opened up by new digital technology through to how to report on violence and oppression.

These are issues that one would have hoped we would not need any longer, but sadly these panels, much like journalists themselves, are as important in 2022 as they have ever been.

For more information and to register for the conference, click here.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme), Professor of Democracy and the Director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR), University of Birmingham

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